Watch Dogs has been one of the most anticipated titles of this year, being fed by the next-generation hype machine over the last few months. After showing an impressive demo at E3 back in 2012, Ubisoft promised a great deal of things for the new franchise – but even after a six month delay, not all of those promises were fulfilled. However, Watch Dogs does stand out in a good way. The game is a solid start to a new franchise in a world littered with endless sequels, and a box of joy for gamers that love sandbox based games.

The game itself takes place in the near-future, where technology has become the big brother in Chicago. This central operating system, also known in-game as cTOS, monitors the entire city. The system tracks peoples personal data, bank account information, text messages and midnight activities while collecting data that helps it to predict crimes, manage traffic and much, much more. Naturally, people work to gain control of that data however, and things quickly escalate as various groups fight for information to use against each other.

You play as Aiden Pearce (voiced by Noam Jenkins), an expert hacker looking for answers after a job gone wrong gets his niece killed. In order to find answers, Aiden puts together a rag-tag group of hackers as he begins to uncover information about who ordered his nieces death. While the cast seemed promising from the get-go, I was a little disappointed with them throughout the game’s story. Aiden himself is a very confusing character, trying to hide his personality in favor of a batman-like tone that relies on cliches and simple statements that fail to add and create a compelling character. He doesn’t go out of his way to try and develop a relationship with any of the other characters like T-Bone (voiced by John Trench) or Clara (voiced by Isabelle Blais) , but rather uses them to achieve a certain goal to advance to the next stage. I didn’t understand their motivations, I wasn’t able to figure out their past and why it mattered, and more importantly; I wasn’t able to fall in love with the cast like I was hoping to.

The Gang

Meet the gang.

That being said, the story does offer a few fantastic moments with certain characters. Take T-Bones scrapyard for example, where I was listening to Ministry’s Jesus Built My Hotrod while setting off fireworks traps and defending myself against waves of militia coming my way. The same type of moments remain true for Aiden’s friend Jordi (voiced by Aaron Douglas), who has some fantastic dialogue that constantly had me laughing through most of the early missions.  I liked these moments where the game’s characters shine, but they were few and far apart throughout Watch Dogs 20 or so hour campaign.

The stories theme bases itself off the acquisition of information, focusing on the value that information plays in the digital age. However, it’s a premise that doesn’t work well in the beginning and unfortunately, Watch Dogs suffers because of it. For the first 7 hours of the main campaign, the game struggled to keep me interested as I fought various groups of men with guns while trying to figure out why they were shooting at me. I was constantly wondering what information I had and why they wanted it, but more importantly who they were and what their motivations were. While the game explains many of the main characters throughout the story after those first 7 hours, it doesn’t explain their organizations. So by the end of the game I was left with many of the same questions about DeadSec, The Fixers, and many other organizations; questions that I still haven’t found the answers to within the game.

While the story does suffer from a lack of character development and a vague explanation to many of its premises, it does set the framework for a new franchise that could develop the intricate story I hoped Watch Dogs would be built on. Without spoiling anything, Ubisoft sets up a pretty promising teaser for the next-sequel at the end of the game’s main story, one which I’m looking forward to with great anticipation already.

Watch Dogs looks great on both the PS4 and Xbox One running at 30 frames, but not as gorgeous as many consumers were led to believe. Back in March, a gif was posted on NeoGAF showcasing the final product compared to the original demo released in 2012 and it started an uproar online. The game certainly doesn’t look as good as the original demo back in 2012, even on the PC – but it does have moments where it showcases the same beauty during thunderstorms and sunsets. However, the game did have some performance issues during my time with it on the Xbox One, most notably – frame lag during certain modes while playing online. This was a consistent problem when playing one of the online modes, decryption. During my time with this section of the game’s multiplayer, I found my frames dropping by nearly half (down to 10-15 frames roughly) after playing one game and moving to a different location for the next round. This lag would then carry over to my single-player game until I restarted the game, thus reloading my map of Chicago. This kept me away from playing some of the online modes, which was unfortunate. This was the only performance problem I was able to find on the Xbox One, but this issue exists on all versions of the game according to other players so here’s to hoping Ubisoft patches it in the near future.

Hacking Explosion

Hacking during combat is down right fun, especially when combined with the right gadgets and weapons.

One of the key selling points of Watch Dogs was the idea that hacking would be your weapon, which is true to a certain degree. The game’s hacking works to provide some unique gameplay elements, allowing you to handle situations differently than you might expect. By using Aiden’s smartphone, you are able to hack into different equipment, including cameras, cell phones, MP3 players, explosives, steam pipes, traffic lights and so much more. Hacking in the game feels like it’s attempt at changing the stealth mechanics of gaming, allowing you to hop from camera to camera to hack into a mainframe, or using distractions to cover your movement across occupied territory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it works so well, especially when you are outnumbered and outgunned.

You also have access to the cTOS profiler, which gives you access to every citizens phone and personal details. I spent hours in the game utilizing this feature to read various peoples personality and hack bank accounts or phone conversations at first, but it does tend to get repetitive. While most of the citizens names remain different and randomized, their descriptions do not, and tend to be recycled the more you roam around the city with your profiler activated. The profiler on your phone also detects potential crimes around the city which continue to be randomly generated, even after completing the set 20 on your progression wheel. However but these quickly tend to get repetitive. Every crime consists of one person assaults another and trying to get away, while you decide to leave or chase them down. This became disappointing after awhile because all of the crimes were consisted of the same 1 on 1 encounter instead of being mixed up with larger street crimes. There were no shootouts that I could intervene in, no bank robberies I could stop early and more importantly, no realistic feeling crimes that I could stop as the vigilante.

The profiler available to Aiden can yield some hilarious results, or make you feel horrible when you access the bank account of a person who desperately needs his or her money.

The profiler available to Aiden can yield some hilarious results, or make you feel horrible when you access the bank account of a person who desperately needs his or her money.

Hacking itself did not feel like the main weapon of focus throughout the game, but rather it stood on even ground with the rest of my arsenal of guns and explosives. With a blend of hacking and gunplay, Ubisoft has created some of the best combat I’ve played in a long, long time. The weapons handle great in Watch Dogs, although the arsenal is limited to stock weapons without customization or upgrades. While this limitation wasn’t what I was hoping for, it forces players to rely on the hacking mechanics which are the foundation of the game.

While it is a important game mechanic, hacking won't be your main weapon in Watch Dogs.

While it is a important game mechanic, hacking won’t be your main weapon in Watch Dogs.

Most of the weapons feel like something straight out of Ghost Recon or Splinter Cell, all handling fairly well with minor differences. Movement also takes a few hints from Splinter Cell: Black List, with a similar cover based system which works extremely well in the environments around Chicago. The game also includes a bullet time mechanic called focus, reminiscent of games like Max Payne. After unlocking this sytem, Aiden can slow down time in combat, while driving and also in certain hacking situations. This mechanic works well with the other options already available in the game. All in all, combat is a fluid and fantastic feeling experience that combines all of Ubisoft’s franchises into a packaged deal, which is now something I expect to see from them in the future.

 

It’s worth pointing out that the animations in Watch Dogs are beautiful, especially in combat.

The animations in Watch Dogs are fantastic.

Aiden’s animations are top notch, especially when moving around obstacles during climbing and combat.

Aiden moves from cover to cover without so much as a stutter; he climbs over fences and combat roles perfectly every time, and even uses the environment without having his hands or feet glitch through the fence. The attention to detail when it comes to his movement is something impressive; every time I was in a combat or chase sequence I felt completely immersed. Each movement is fluid, especially when chained together, and never seems to glitch no matter how many times I tried. It’s a great feeling to have when playing a game like this, especially since so many Ubisoft titles are based around movement.

Now, Watch Dogs does feature a level-up and upgrade system for your character, which is filled with various skills focused on hacking, driving, combat and crafting. Each of these skills feels valuable and noteworthy, but doesn’t go out of its way to be unique. Take the combat skills for example, while there are plenty – they don’t provide anything outside of rapid reloads and increased damage bonuses. The hacking skills are probably the most noteworthy, many of which allow you to control more of the city to your advantage. I made the mistake of spending my first points elsewhere during the beginning of the game, which didn’t help me much in many of the scenarios I was placed in. You also have access to notoriety skills, which are only used online. These give you bonuses in the various modes available online, but unfortunately don’t do much for your character offline.

Outside of the main story, Watch Dogs delivers a huge sandbox environment for completionists to spend hours upon hours in. Chicago is filled with side quests, random events like Gang Hideouts and Criminal Convoys, private investigations and collectibles for players to find. These tasks make up about 60% of the game, which is fantastic for players like myself who enjoy free roam content and exploring every nook and cranny of the environment. Most of these events are found via cTOS towers scattered throughout the city. Similar to viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed or Radio Towers in Far Cry, these towers require players to hack into them via a series of cameras, gates and guards. After accessing a tower, it will then reveal every piece of side content in the immediate area. Throughout Chicago, there are 13 of these towers for players to discover and hack into, although it’s disappointing that not all of them contain a security force to present a challenge.

Digital Trips are loads of fun, with each one offering an entirely different experience for you to play through and master.

Digital Trips are loads of fun, with each one offering an entirely different experience for you to play through and master.

The side content is great, polished and insanely fun. Each of Gang Hideouts, Criminal Convoys and Fixer contracts allow you to handle them however you would like, allowing for creative combinations of hacking and combat. Even most of the collectibles add up to something, filling in pieces of the story and providing some really great easter eggs. However, my favorite side activities were the Digital Trips that Watch Dogs offered via some strange looking men in back alleys. Accessed from your phone, these trips send audio signals into your brain that cause you to go into a comatose-like state and play some extremely crazy mini-games. There are 5 in total, with one being accessed via DLC, that include their own progression, skill trees and challenges. Personally I enjoyed stomping around as a spider tank and avoiding TV-headed robots in suits while trying to restore power to the city, but the others are just as good.

The game also has multiplayer, but it isn’t as well integrated as I would have liked. Players are able to compete in a few different online modes such as Decryption (similar to capture the flag), Tailing, Hacking and Racing. While the one vs. one hacking and tailing are actually quite fun, they don’t pop up as much as Ubisoft claimed in their earlier demos of the game. I rarely encountered another player trying to invade my world and it didn’t feel like it had much of a purpose when it happened. The multiplayer Racing and Decryption are extremely fun when played with friends, but it’s difficult to get your friends into the same lobby, which defeats the purpose entirely. I was looking forward to the free roam that Watch Dogs offered as well…however there are no activities for you and your friends to participate in. There are no crimes, gang hideouts or convoys, just team deathmatch with other fixers. Even then, it has to be turned on for players to engage each other. It felt as if Ubisoft had a difficult time finishing the multiplayer which could have been a key selling point to many players, especially since it was huge focus by the company in their marketing.

The cTOS companion application is loads of fun to use against your friends while on the go.

The cTOS companion application is loads of fun to use against your friends while on the go.

One thing that did stand out however was the cTOS mobile application available on the iOS and Android market. Coming out on launch day, the mobile application allows phone users to hack their friends and initiate a mobile challenge by sending police after them while they try to complete a race through checkpoints. It’s simple but effective, especially between friends who want to challenge each other. I really enjoyed it on my Twitch streams last week, where my viewers were constantly challenging me and bragging when they won. The application works well on both smartphones and tablets, and has become my go-to entertainment when I’m waiting for my friends to meet me for pizza.

After spending nearly 40+ hours with Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, I have to say I was impressed overall. The game offers tons of content for a $60 price tag, even though it takes a few hours for the story to become interesting with its premise. The game’s main story has an great cast of characters despite their potential never being fully realized, and I appreciate how it handles the thematic approach about technology being used to control the population. Watch Dogs does set a new standard for animation, even though it may be a small detail to many people who play the game. The fluid movement and combat is definitely one of the game’s greatest strengths at the end of the day, and something I hope Ubisoft carries into their other franchises. Add in the sandbox elements, including hours of side quests, online activities and collectibles to find, and Watch Dogs is a solid start to a brand new franchise.

Watch Dogs Review
Story7
Gameplay9
Environment9
Graphics8.5
Multiplayer Integration7.5
PROS
  • Fantastic, fluid combat
  • Plenty to do in the open world of Chicago
  • Unique, fun use of companion mobile application
CONS
  • Underdeveloped characters
  • Slow start to the main story
8Overall Score
Reader Rating: (2 Votes)
6.5

About The Author

Podcast Host/Broadcast Specialist

Nicholas Bashore started gaming nearly 20 years ago and is currently working towards his degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. One of the four founding members of Gamer Assault Weekly, Nicholas works on YouTube and TwitchTV as a broadcaster - while writing reviews and hosting the Weekly Recap on the site. In his free time, he enjoys discussing the gaming industry and spending hours looking for Daedric artifacts.